Emperor Worship

There has been much discussion and disagreement concerning the significance of emperor worship in relation to establishing the date of the book of Revelation. As we mentioned in our discussion of the internal evidence for the early date, there are those who consider the worship of the Roman Emperors to be one of the keys to identifying the Beast of Revelation with Nero. So much so that they understand the events of the book as primarily centering around the Emperor Cult associated with the Roman Caesars, thereby interpreting it to be a veiled political document of John’s day.

The primary problem with understanding emperor worship at John’s time as a major contributor to dating the book lies in the assumption that much of what is described within the book relates to Rome and the Caesars of that time. But this is not as obvious as some would assume. First, the persecutions which the seven churches are said to be undergoing are not necessarily a reflection of the emperor cult. Second, the association of the Beast with the current emperor of Rome is uncertain. None of the Roman emperors are known to have fulfilled the specific predictions set forth by John, unless God be accused of the extensive use of hyperbole throughout the prophecy. In fact, none of the specifics revealed concerning the activities of the Beast can be definitively assigned to any of the Roman emperors. Therefore, it is our feeling that any allusions to emperor worship thought to be in the text are dubious and of only secondary value in establishing a date with any reliability.

The main argument in favor of the late date in relation to emperor worship is found in the belief that at the time of Nero, emperor worship (where the emperor was regarded as god) had not fully come to the fore: “He was not tempted like his predecessors to imagine himself divine, preferring to gain credit for brilliant endowments of a human type. He shrank from the title of Divus and the erection of temples in his honour, because they seemed to forebode the approach of death, and Nero loved life better than a shadowy immortality.”1

At a later date, under Domitian, emperor worship is said to have developed more fully,2 “It is known that Domitian went beyond his predecessor in asserting his own divinity.”3

More important for the [dating] issue here is that Nero was not deified, though there is some evidence that he wished to be. However, there was no widespread demand that he be recognized as such. . . . the coins of the 90s prove Domitian’s megalomania; they show even his wife was called the mother of the divine Caesar. . . . the imperial cult was apparently much more developed and prominent in Domitian’s day than it was in Nero’s time.4

Under Nero and his successors down to Domitian, the emperor-cult continued as one of the established religious institutions, but its progress is not signalized by edicts enforcing it, or by notorious persecutions arising from it. It is in the reign of Domitian (81-96) that we reach an insistence upon the cultus more vehement and more threatening for the future. . . . Clement of Rome, contemporary with Domitian, refers to his course in the quite general words ‘the sudden and repeated calamities and adversities which have befallen us.’5

We are told by ancient Roman writers that toward the end of Domitian’s reign there was more chaos in the cultural and social spheres of the Empire than in any prior time. Furthermore, we are informed that Domitian insisted on greater divine titles than earlier emperors in order to increase his tyrannical hold on the reigns of government. Those refusing to acknowledge these new titles were persecuted.6

Whatever the case may be, it is our feeling that the state of emperor worship at the time of John is not a reliable indicator of the date of the book, whether early or late, because it cannot be clearly shown that the events within the book which appear similar are in fact truly related. Especially given the global and eschatological focus of this last book of the Bible.


1 Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998, 1906), lxxxiv.

2 Yet not all agree. David Aune, writing in the forward to Hemer states: “Hemer affirms the historicity of ‘the Domitianic persecution,’ though scholarship during the last twenty-five years has shown that an official and empire-wide persecution under the reign of Domitian has no firm historical basis but was in fact a Christian legend which reached full-blown form with Eusebius of Caesarea in the early fourth century AD.”—Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), xviii.

3 Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, lxxxii.

4 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 6-7.

5 Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 200,204.

6 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 5.